When I was in first grade, the regular classroom teacher introduced the class to the concepts of photosynthesis and how plants grow with a fun little song about a pumpkin. “It starts out as a seed, and grows into a sprout. Then it becomes a plant, and grows into a flower. From the flower (clap clap) from the flower (clap clap) da-da-da it’s a pumpkin!” This was a fun little song that I enjoyed, but my vision teacher who pulled me out of class for one-on-one lessons a couple hours a week did one even better. In February or March of that year, she brought in a big plastic garden container, dirt and a packet of pumpkin seeds and we started growing pumpkins in a sunny window in the resource room. Every other day, I dutifully watered the seeds, and I think Mr. Rick (also known as Zero the Hero because he dressed up as a zero to celebrate every tenth day of school for the kindergartners) one of the janitors checked on the pumpkins over the weekend and watered them over spring break. It was so exciting to come to school each day and feel the slow but steady progress of the pumpkins from tiny sprouts you could barely feel to tall plants with full leaves. And then my vision teacher said it was time to transition them to living outdoors. She explained how the plants needed to be acclimated to living outdoors, so I should put them outside for one hour the first day, two hours the next and so on, and in a couple weeks, they would be ready to be planted in the ground. Life was hectic back then and a few times, we forgot about the plants and left them outside too long, so they may have been in a weakened state, but Mom resuscitated them and a couple weeks later, we thought they were healthy enough to plant outside. I remember Mom and one of my brothers going outside to till up a spot for my pumpkins and they got the pumpkins planted in the ground for me. But once outside, they did not survive long.
Ever since then, I have longed to plant a seed, and see that seed all the way through to harvest. But I have never had success achieving this dream. Over the years, I have tried growing all kinds of things. In sixth grade, I took a few of the million “helicopter seeds” that fall on our patio each year around the end of May and put them in cups of dirt with some water. Some of them sprouted and grew a few tiny leaves but then died. In eighth grade, I tried growing an herb garden using a seed kit, but this garden didn’t last long either. In the summer of 2013 while waiting for a job, Mom tilled up an area of the garden where we planted pumpkin seeds directly into the ground. These pumpkins came closer than the pumpkins from first grade, producing big, beautiful flowers, but for some reason, those flowers did not become pumpkins. In 2016 and 2017, now that I had my own money, I told myself both years “this will be the year for gardening success.” I bought fancy plastic containers with drainage holes, organic soil made from composted food, organic seeds from Everwilde Farms, a company that touted high germination rates and used special packaging to protect the seeds and preserve them so they could be stored for more than one year. I dutifully went outside and checked my plants each day and watered them if they seemed dry. I tried growing lettuce, basil, chamomile, borrage and marigolds. Although Mom had to help me because I had planted the tiny basil seeds way too close together causing them to sprout as a massive indistinguishable blob, once Mom helped me untangle and thin out this blob, my basil grew pretty tall, but the leaves never got big and beautiful enough to be worthy of caprese salad. Everything else would grow a little and then stop.
Some of my gardening failure is due to factors outside my control. My parents suspect that the reason that a lot of things we have tried to grow in the ground have not done well is because the soil in our area is full of clay. Mom and Dad will go out and manually till the soil for a small garden of tomatoes, zucchini and peppers and some flowers close to the house. We have dreamed of growing pumpkins, or a cash crop of something like garlic as we have an acre of open land, but none of us have the strength to manually till that much land, and hiring a rodotiller would be expensive. And of course, as advanced as humans have become when it comes to technology and gardening techniques, we are no different than the farmers going back to ancient times in that we are at the mercy of weather. Even if you do everything right, all it takes is one storm, unexpected frost, or stretch of scorching temperatures to devastate a garden. But it didn’t help that I often would either forget to water the plants, or water them too well as gardening advice on how much to water plants has always seemed ambiguous to me. I have probably always been getting something wrong when it comes to fertilizer, and soil type too, but in these areas too, articles from garden experts are so complicated. I actually find it easier to care for my dog than a garden, as Gilbert stays underfoot, practically tripping me until I feed him, so I couldn’t possibly forget, and I can tell by the change in sound as he drinks from his water bowl when it is getting low. Wisconsin also has a very short growing season so for plants to grow well, you almost have to start them indoors in February or March, but since there is still a thick blanket of snow or ice on the ground at that time, I never remember to start the seeds early enough. And so because I didn’t start the seeds early enough and don’t know what I am doing when it comes to feeding and watering them, I get so discouraged at the lack of progress with my plants by the end of July or early August that I just give up on them.
This year, I just wasn’t in the gardening spirit. For one thing, my allergies have been especially bad this year and I have been plagued by frequent sinus headaches. For another, this year, it seemed like we went straight from winter to summer, and the sudden jump from 40 degree temperatures to 80 degrees and humid wreaked further havoc on my body, so I had no motivation to garden. On June 14, I decided we might as well plant the remaining lettuce, basil, chamomile and marigold seeds from last year just for the heck of it, even though my heart was not in it. Mom said she would help me space the seeds out so they would have more room to grow this year. But on June 14, in addition to being another hot day, a couple of bees were pestering me, buzzing too close for comfort, and those who know me well know that buzzing bugs totally freak me out and send me into a panic. I helped Mom a little bit by loosening the soil in a couple of the containers with a hoe, but those bees were getting me too nervous to focus on the delicate operation of planting tiny seeds, and I felt another headache coming on from the heat. So I told Mom she could do whatever she wanted with my seeds this year. I didn’t care. Mom planted all of my remaining seeds and even some lavender I had bought and forgot about, but she recently told me they have not done well this year. I think this is due to the especially hot summer we have had this year. Mom’s zucchini which usually produces more big beautiful fruit than we know what to do with hasn’t done well either. In Mom’s case, I know she will not despair and try growing zucchini again next year. We have a wonderful farmers market so we will not have to do without. Before I was born, my family lived in a small town called Eau Claire, about four hours north of where we live now. In Eau Claire, they had a neighbor who was an expert gardener, and even hosted a radio show about gardening. He would share his harvest with my family, but even he said he had gardening failures as gardening is an inexact science. But he would laugh and take it in stride saying, “the most fun part of gardening is seeing what will go wrong this year!” When Mom has gardening failures, she finds encouragement in these neighbor’s words. But as for me, I have decided that maybe I should stop trying to be someone I am not. There are many things I am good at like singing, writing essays and reading braille. Maybe in the restoration, when I imagine bees will no longer sting and the oppressive weather exacerbated by climate change will be no more, I will try again. But in this life, I will focus on what I am good at, and leave gardening to Mom and the farmers market.